Something about summer always makes me nostalgic. The heat, the smell, the sounds — summers always remind me of hot sticky days in Louisville or frollicking in summer rainstorms at camp, two and three-a-day field hockey practices and the post-practice pain that aches in that sort of wonderful kind of way. But most of all, summer makes me nostalgic for the lake.
After Zelda waxed poetic on her family home in New Hampshire (and trekked up there for an actual visit), I got a little homesick for my own family summers past. I’ve always been a lake person: The ocean’s great, sure, but the lake’s ability to be both quiet and loud (and its inherent lack of sand) has always drawn me in. Every summer of my childhood, our family friends, the Shortens — Carol, Dave, and their daughter Taylor — my mom, and I would make the four-hour trip down to Norris Lake in the northeastern corner of Tennessee where my grandparents lived at the time. And in that corner of Appalachia, we would spend some quality family time in an old A-frame cabin on a hill.
Our journey started in Louisville. We’d climb in the car and follow the highway and then the side roads, listening to episodes of “Car Talk” or “Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!” By the time we hit my mom’s hometown of Pineville, Bonnie Raitt or Patty Loveless would be crooning in the background. We’d drive over the 33 Bridge, in all its green and rusty glory, and I’d get my first view of my second home, the lake stretching out beyond the horizon. My anticipation would build as we turned off the paved roads and onto a long stretch of gravel road that led to the old blue house on the hill.
We’d drive down the steep driveway on a Friday evening as the trail of the sunset glistened on the lake’s surface. The Shortens, our closest family friends (Mom and Carol became fast friends in med school, and having daughters less than a year apart would only make them closer), would pull in right next to us, and Taylor — the closest thing I’ve ever had to a sister — and I would jump from the back seats and fly into the long narrow kitchen where my grandmother was waiting with peanut butter fudge or angel food cake.
Despite this wholesome beginning to every trip, life at the lake was slightly less quaint than life at Zelda’s Big House (come to think of it, slightly may be an understatement here). Summers at the lake were slightly debauched, perhaps a little bit depraved, but that was what I always loved about them. For multiple weekends in the summer, it was all about fun, and food, and family. Each morning we’d wake up to a hearty breakfast eaten out on the deck, and then we’d all gear up and head down to the dock to wile away the hours in the sunshine.
My grandparents were a centerpoint at the lake community. Every Saturday, Gaga (my grandma) would spend most of the day cooking, and not just for the seven of us in the house. She’d string beans and fry chicken for upwards of 30 people every week. The mornings would start with just us — drinking, reading, listening to music, jumping off the dock into the still water — but by mid-afternoon there’d be six or seven boats strung together alongside ours. Gaga would bring down some dips, chips, and many other snacks, and one of the many boats would bring booze reinforcements.
The lake for me was always about the people. These characters only showed up in my life two or three times a year, but they made such a lasting impression on me that I always wanted to go back. There were folks named Turkey and Critter, whose personalities were as great as their names. These people were my lake family, and I loved them fiercely. I was too young to really understand all the things that went on at the lake for a while, but as I grew older it didn’t all go over my head. The lake was where I learned what skinny dipping was; it was where I first tried beer. It was where my grandmother made somebody a birthday cake shaped like a set of breasts (the infamous “boob cake”).
It’s been a while since I’ve been back to Norris Lake. My grandparents sold the house to a friend when I was in high school, and by that point I spent most summers doing other “productive” things anyway. But my last big hurrah came in college. I knew there was only one place I wanted to celebrate my twenty-first birthday, and I wasn’t going to let an October date stop me, so Mom and the Shortens rented a houseboat the summer before my twenty-first. We piled a bunch of our friends into it and I spent the weekend exactly how I wanted to: I broke beans with Gaga, I drank beers with my mom, I went tubing and waterskiing, I did flips off the top of the boat. For that short time, I did without indoor plumbing and took a “lake shower” every morning, and I did it with all the people that made my childhood memories so great. We were all older, but it was just as fun, in some cases even more so.
I made one brief trip back to Norris during my senior year of college. On a spring break road trip my friends and I stopped at Turkey’s Dry Dock, and he took us out on the chilly lake. It was a weird sensation introducing my liberal college friends to this little corner of my life, but as soon as I saw the glassy water I was overcome with nostalgia for this place, these people. It’s been three years since I set foot on those shores, and every summer that goes by without my visiting pulls me back even more.
Taylor — my summer cohort, sister, friend, and partner-in-crime — is spending this year traveling the country for an amazing cause. We don’t talk as much as we used to, but we’ve known each other literally our entire lives, so we don’t have to talk often to be close. It had been a few months since I’d heard directly from her (social media keeps us in a constant state of awareness of each other’s comings and goings), but on July Fourth weekend she sent me a text. It was only three words long. “Missing the lake,” she said. Me too, Taylor. All summer, every day.